Maia Chankseliani

New publication: Emerging global players: Building institutional legitimacy in universities in Estonia and Kazakhstan

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Summer 2018 is turning out to be a productive time for book publishing: in July, a chapter I wrote with Professor Creso Sá on scientific nationalism and scientific globalism was published; late August saw the publication of my new chapter with Dr Merli Tamtik called:

Comparing post-socialist transformations book cover
Book cover of ‘Comparing Post-Socialist Transformations’

Emerging global players: Building institutional legitimacy in universities in Estonia and Kazakhstan

 

It’s out as part of an exciting new collection, Comparing Post-Socialist Transformations: Purposes, policies, and practices in education, edited by Maia Chankseliani and Iveta Silova.

Our chapter compares how Estonia and Kazakhstan are using their two flagship universities – the University of Tartu and Nazarbayev University – as tools in their broader quest to find a place towards the top of the global hierarchy of nations with high quality (and top ranking) universities.

Why compare Estonia and Kazakhstan?

Apart from the obvious sharing of 20th century educational and political history as republics of the USSR, both states have in recent decades been investing heavily in higher education reforms. They do this in their effort to transform into the much desired ‘knowledge economy’, which is basically a global panacea for all countries’ educational and labour market problems.

Adding a really interesting dimension to the comparison is the historical differences between the two countries and universities we examined. Estonia was a nation-state well before being annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, and the the University of Tartu is one of the oldest universities in the European model, having been founded in 1632. That makes it older than any university in the United States which has a plethora of institutions in the global rankings.

At the other geographical end of the former Soviet space, Kazakhstan became an independent state only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It does have a deep and rich history, just not in the geographic and political formation it inherited last century. Our case study Nazarbayev University is an archetypal creation of contemporary Kazakhstan, teaching in English, recruiting academics from around the world and rapidly expanding after admitting its first students in 2010.

Building international legitimacy

To make our comparison, we used the theoretical idea of international legitimacy building. This is a dynamic process in which actors – in our case, the governments of Estonia and Kazakhstan and the two universities – discover, shape, adopt and diffuse ideas or sets of norms with the aim of enhancing their global standing.

Having a top university is one symbol of being a highly ranked nation, which is why we focused in on the flagship university in each state.

Going through the four phases of international legitimacy building, we found both patterns and divergences between the two countries. For example, strong leadership from the top in steering higher education was found in both settings, as were a series of rapid reforms to higher education made as soon as economically possible after 1991.

The clearest distinction between the two states was the much greater agency of higher education institutions in Estonia than their counterparts in Kazakhstan, where persistent centralization has only very recently started to shift towards offering universities greater autonomy.

Why is this important?

It’s never enough to say that your study is important because it is the first of its kind (although it is true that this is the first comparison of national/higher education developments in Estonia and Kazakhstan and we are pretty excited about having done this!).

We believe the chapter makes a contribution in the understanding and analysis of processes of state formation in the post-socialist space – states that are (re-)forming under intense global pressures not experienced by other countries that came into existence in the mid-20th century or earlier.

We have also used our study to raise the important question of ‘what happens next’ for states like Estonia and Kazakhstan that choose to adopt dominant global discourses. Can they get their heads above the parapets and get the universities into a global top 100 ranking? Will they have to change their systems completely to achieve what they see as ‘global best practice’? Or is there a way in which Estonia and Kazakhstan can use this global discourse to enable their universities to flourish as global players on their own terms?


Reference

Tamtik, Merli, and Emma Sabzalieva. 2018. “Emerging Global Players? Building International Legitimacy in Universities in Estonia and Kazakhstan.” In Comparing Post-Socialist Transformations: Education in Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Union, edited by Maia Chankseliani and Iveta Silova, 127–45. Oxford: Symposium Books.


More details about the book including a useful summary and chapter listing can be found at: http://www.symposium-books.co.uk/bookdetails/104/

Under copyright rules, I am not allowed to freely distribute our chapter. Sorry. But if you are based at a university or college, would you encourage your library to stock a copy? Thank you to Max Antony-Newman for requesting a copy for the University of Toronto library already!

Alternatively, if you would like to buy a copy, I can help you get one with an extremely respectable 50% author discount. Please drop me a note to follow up.

Does study abroad lead to democracy in former Soviet countries?

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The cat meme is back… You’ve got to admit this is a good one…

These days, there’s a lot of literature out there – both in the academic and the policy worlds – on studying abroad. You can read about why students choose to go abroad for higher education, how studying abroad changes students, how states compete to recruit the best students from around the world, what this all means for the global inequality between nations … and much, much more.

Studies of students studying abroad from or in the former Soviet Union, my particular region of interest, are few and far between. Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics English-language publication Higher Education in Russia and Beyond collected a good array of new work on this growing area of interest earlier in 2017 (including my article on Tajikistan’s international students) and there’s a special edition of an academic journal on study abroad from Central Asia planned for later this year/early next year (watch this space).

 

Amongst a handful of researchers focussing on Central Asia, Nazgul Mingisheva of Kazakhstan’s Karaganda Medical State University presented really interesting empirical work on international students from South Asia who study at her university at the 2017 ESCAS-CESS Regional Conference. There are also a growing number of publications on the impact of the Kazakhstan government’s massive Bolashak scholarship scheme, which to date has funded over 10,000 students to complete Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhDs and vocational/short-term study abroad.

So that’s the state of the field: a vast amount available on study abroad in general, and really not very much (in English at least) on student mobility from the perspective of the former Soviet countries.

As such, the findings from a new study by Maia Chankseliani of the University of Oxford have been greeted with a great detail of interest. Firstly, her research on student mobility from the former Soviet states fills in broad gaps in our empirical understanding of trends and changes in study abroad from this large region.

More important, however, is her stunningly stark finding that there seems to be a link between where students from the former Soviet countries study and levels of democratic development in their home country. The basic hypothesis is that the more students who study in European Union countries as opposed to Russia, the greater the likelihood that their home country is more democratic. Just take a look at this:

Maia_1

Here you see that countries towards the top-right (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) have both much higher proportions of mobile students heading to European Union states AND higher rankings in the Economist’s democracy index.

Conversely, those countries that send fewer of their mobile students to the EU (bottom-left of the graph – mainly Central Asian states) also experience lower levels of democratic development.

Now, contrast those findings to the next graph, which plots the number of study abroad students going to Russia against levels of democratic development. The results are almost completely reversed:

Maia_2

Here you see the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sending the fewest mobile students to Russia, placing them at the top-left of the graph. Although the Central Asian states are less grouped here, there is clearly a connection with the proportion of students going from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to Russia vs the EU and their levels of democratic development.

Chankseliani has suggested in an article in this week’s Times Higher Education that the experience of studying abroad in democratic societies may act as an “apprenticeship in democracy”.

Whilst abroad, students are exposed to the norms and rules of a democratic country and potentially undergo personal changes in their own views about politics, society and economics. On returning home, they may become facilitators for greater democratic development.

This thesis appears to be compellingly supported by her data (although Kyrgyzstan seems to be an unaccounted-for anomaly). If true, states wishing to transmit their own democratic norms and values have a clear rationale to start channeling their soft power resources into recruiting students from less democratic nations.

However, I think the data only tells us part of the story.

The graphs, clear and compelling as they are, do not explain how students who have studied abroad go back and make a difference in their home nation. Can you really induce a change in political system simply by having temporarily lived in a democracy? Or is it that the changes Chankseliani is indicating are on a much smaller scale – tiny individual actions that collectively may lead to a cultural shift at home?

Further, the actual number of mobile students from the former Soviet states is tiny compared to the overall number of people in those countries who go through higher education, and even less compared to the population as a whole. Put otherwise, there simply aren’t enough people studying abroad to come back and make such significant changes at home that democratize the country.

Finally (for now), the biggest issue I have with the data is that they disregard the history and context of the home setting. Take the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as an example.

Each of these countries has centuries-long histories of statehood, and each shares the same geographic neighbourhood as Europe. Indeed, the boundaries of contemporary Lithuania have changed so much over the last few hundred years between what is now Germany, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania that in some respects it’s a very artificial distinction to separate out the Baltics from Europe in the first place. As soon as these three states regained independence after the Soviet period, they threw themselves back towards Europe, gaining EU membership in 2004. It could be argued, then, that it is the structural conditions of these states – their history, geography, culture, and pre-Soviet political systems – that leads to students going to study more in the EU than in Russia and to their current democratic political systems than to the notion that it is the returning mobile students who lead to democratic change.

Chankseliani acknowledges this in her longer presentation on the subject, available on ResearchGate. This opens the way to some fantastically interesting future studies on what she terms the actor vs structure debate.

What do you think?

Are students who’ve studied abroad drivers of political change? Is this even possible in authoritarian states?

Or is the systems and structures that surround us that are responsible for political developments?